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Tron Has Gotten Too Strong for Pauper

2019 saw seven cards added to the Pauper ban list. Some of these—High Tide, Hymn to Tourach, Sinkhole—were the byproduct of card pool unification. The others—Arcum’s Astrolabe, Daze, Gitaxian Probe, Gush—got the axe because they were too dominant. In the latter case, the decks that ran the offending cards had a better-than-55% win rate against the field. As the year draws to a close, another behemoth has emerged at the top of the metagame: Flicker Tron.

Flicker Tron

A_AdeptoTerra – Finalist, December 1st Pauper Playoff

3 Cave of Temptation
1 Remote Isle
1 Swiftwater Cliffs
4 Tranquil Cove
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower
1 Island
2 Dinrova Horror
3 Mnemonic Wall
4 Mulldrifter
4 Stonehorn Dignitary
1 Compulsive Research
1 Dawn Charm
3 Ephemerate
2 Ghostly Flicker
3 Impulse
2 Mystical Teachings
2 Prohibit
2 Pulse of Murasa
1 Rain of Revelation
1 Unwind
3 Expedition Map
4 Prophetic Prism

Sideboard
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Blue Elemental Blast
1 Dispel
1 Hydroblast
3 Lone Missionary
1 Moment's Peace
2 Pyroblast
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 Ulamog's Crusher

Pauper is particularly vulnerable to certain decks running roughshod over the metagame. This stems from the inherent restriction on the card pool. Frankly, there are some effects that are nigh impossible to print at common. The result is that a lot of the checks on degenerate decks in large formats like Pioneer, Modern, and Legacy simply cannot exist in Pauper. Because of this, the ban list is the best tool for removing problematic strategies if they prove to be too dominant.

Flicker Tron has been defining Pauper for the past month and a half. The deck wins either by attacking with Mulldrifter or building a buyback Recoil thanks to Dinrova Horror and Mnemonic Wall. Using Ghostly Flicker and Wall, Flicker Tron is able to use its abundance of mana to rebuy enters-the-battlefield triggers multiple times per turn. Modern Horizons helped to shrink the window of opportunity with Ephemerate, which combines with Mulldrifter to draw an additional two cards; with Mnemonic Wall to build an Eternal Witness every turn; and with Dinrova Horror for even more fun.

But that’s the end game. To get to this point, Tron has to take some pretty serious defensive measures. Moment’s Peace takes the place of a traditional board wipe as it trades in the most valuable resource for Tron: time. There is no need to remove creatures from play when you are a lock to win. Weather the Storm is another Modern Horizons inclusion that can help Tron survive non-combat damage. Finally there is Stonehorn Dignitary which does not just prevent damage or gain life, but completely shuts down the combat phase. Combined with a single Ephemerate, Stonehorn takes away three turns worth of attacks.

While Flicker Tron occupies the control role in the Pauper metagame, it operates as a specific subset of control: Prison. Flicker Tron seeks to lock out its opponents from interacting on not just any meaningful axis, but rather the axis where aggressive decks traditionally have the advantage against control decks, combat.

The combination of the Tron mana engine, Moment’s Peace, Stonehorn Dignitary, and flicker effects means that the window to shatter the prison is minuscule. Tron can set up its defenses on turn 4, and turn 3 is within the realm of possibility. That means the beatdown player will have to assemble lethal by their third turn in order to stand a chance. While such locks may be acceptable in other formats due to the interplay of more powerful effects, Pauper lacks such options. The compressed window of turns that matter makes it difficult for an aggressive deck to actually beat Tron once they find the first fog.

And so we return to the limitations of the Pauper card pool. If a deck like Flicker Tron existed in another format, a card such as Containment Priest, Rest in Peace, or Dryad Militant could find their way into decks or sideboards to combat the engine. As it stands, Pauper has access to some good graveyard hate in Bojuka Bog, Faerie Macabre, Nihil Spellbomb, and Relic of Progenitus. Still, these are cards Tron can play around thanks to having multiple copies of the key cards.

Flicker Tron, as it currently exists, is a problem deck for Pauper. Not only is it powerful and consistent, it shuts down combat-based strategies. Given the nature of the Pauper card pool, taking away the ability to attack—in a manner befitting of the Philosophy of Fire—shuts down a core element of Magic.

What can be done? Hate cards are not likely to be printed at common soon. While Pauper would benefit from hate bears, such a strategy isn’t likely to be on the horizon for the reasons stated above. In my opinion there are two targets for potential action: the Tron mana engine or the Flicker engine.

Let’s start with Tron. Once online, the three lands subvert the traditional investment of the mana system. Theoretically, this is balanced by the fact that Tron only produces colorless mana, making it difficult to cast high impact spells of multiple colors. Pauper Tron sidesteps this through the use of Prophetic Prism and Cave of Temptation. The pair allow what is a base blue deck to easily run key white and green cards in the 60 while maintaining access to sideboard bullet red cards. Between the London Mulligan and Expedition Map, it is easy to assemble Tron. Outside of the prison lock elements and the countermagic, the deck is built to see as many cards as possible while also pulling them from various zones. The result is a deck that can routinely outstrip other decks in mana production by turn 4. It can then utilize this surplus of resources to recycle its loops to draw extra cards from the graveyard or flicker Dinrova Horror to build a storm of Recoils.

The Flicker Engine has been the basis of many a broken Pauper deck. Ghostly Flicker, filtered through Mnemonic Wall and another creature with an enters-the-battlefield effect, creates a Rube Goldberg device capable of stacking triggers that can do any number of things from using Chittering Rats to lock out draw steps, to regrowing additional spells with Mnemonic Wall, to drawing a ton of cards with Mulldrifter. Like Tron, the Flicker Engine is about subverting the mana system. Rather than spending full price to get these effects, the Tron player can simply pay 3 to have their cake and eat it too. Ghostly Flicker can also target lands and artifacts, drawing extra cards off of Prophetic Prism and protecting lands from Stone Rain. Ephemerate adds a layer of redundancy for creatures that can store half of the spell in exile to dodge Bojuka Bog and its ilk.

Taken in isolation, neither of these engines is offensive. In Pauper’s past, Tron has been used to power out early copies Mulldrifter and Fangren Marauder before ending the game with Ulamog’s Crusher or Rolling Thunder. Outside of dedicated combo decks, Ghostly Flicker has been used mainly to lock out draw steps with Archaeomancer and Chittering Rats. Together these two engines overlap in such a way that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. In a perfect world, they would both be able to coexist while new cards enter the format to help fight the good fight. Given this is unlikely to happen, I think there are some steps that can be taken to reduce Flicker Tron’s dominance without completely neutering the deck or forcing other strategies to take splash damage.

If I were in charge, I would focus on the following cards:

Expedition Map

Expedition Map

I have long been vocal about my thoughts on Tron being problematic in Pauper. Over the past month, many people have made their case that other cards should be the target. Between the London Mulligan and powerful card filtering, Tron comes together easier than a ham sandwich. Removing Expedition Map could allow Tron to remain in the format while reducing its consistency.

Ghostly Flicker

Ghostly Flicker

For just as long as I have felt Tron is a problem, I have believed Ghostly Flicker to be fine. The printing of Mystic Sanctuary forced me to reevaluate my stance. The ability of Flicker to target a land now makes it trivial to assemble another combo loop that, while not as redundant as Tron, creates a similar game state. Ghostly Flicker has a suitable replacement in Displace, which can only hit creatures.

Azorius Familiars

Saidin.ranken – Top 4, December 1st Pauper Playoff

7 Island
2 Plains
3 Ash Barrens
2 Azorius Chancery
3 Evolving Wilds
1 Mortuary Mire
3 Mystic Sanctuary
4 God-Pharaoh's Faithful
4 Mulldrifter
1 Sage's Row Denizen
4 Sea Gate Oracle
4 Sunscape Familiar
4 Deep Analysis
2 Ponder
4 Preordain
1 Dispel
1 Echoing Truth
3 Ghostly Flicker
3 Prismatic Strands
2 Prohibit
2 Snap

Sideboard
3 Dispel
2 Aven Riftwatcher
3 Blue Elemental Blast
2 Disdainful Stroke
1 Nature's Chant
1 Negate
3 Stonehorn Dignitary

Stonehorn Dignitary

Stonehorn Dignitary

Pauper is a format of commons, and while shutting down one combat step is good as a stop gap, the ability to do it over and over again removes a check on control decks. I am less sure about targeting the Rhino, especially if other measures are effective. That being said, I would not be sad to see the Dignitary visit another kingdom.

Ephemerate

Ephemerate

If spending 3 mana to rebuy two enters-the-battlefield effects is too good, is spending 1 mana three times as broken? I am not sure, but Ephemerate has the potential to create the same redundancy as Ghostly Flicker.

None of these solutions are perfect, and new information can (and likely will) be uncovered that could have me reconsidering these options again. On December 16th, I would like to see action taken on both Map and Flicker, and I would not be sad to see Stonehorn Dignitary go as well.

What do you think? What cards should be the target of Play Design’s ire?

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